Field Latrines

Yesterday I just described some of the mild issues that occur on even most of the most civilized posts and deployments. If you are not at one of those well established locations in time – you may well have dealt with what Ron describes (edited only to remove some personal IDs). Shared with his permission -some memories into words. A little gross for some, but this is the reality of soldiering most never deal with.

I got in the mood of topic and put some memories into print.  Share if you like.  A little gross for some, but this is the reality of soldiering most never deal with.

 Anyone who has ever deployed to an initial phase of a combat theater of operation knows how base the first few weeks of a conflict can make the simple tasks a challenge.  This becomes most clear the first time one feels the need for a toilet.

 The US/NATO operation in Bosnia in 1996, as part of the Implementation Force (IFOR) mission was my first introduction to the joins of the e-tool (entrenching tool aka tactical shovel).  We entered northern Bosnia early January.  In case you did not know, the word “Balkan” means mountains in Serbo-Croatian.  Yes we were in the mountains in January.  The high temp was just above freezing, nights well below freezing.

You also have to factor in our diet, MRE’s or nothing.  Stated another way, an extremely low fiber diet.  Water was difficult to come by on the best of days.  We were buying from local sources and then throwing it away when it failed inspection on delivery.  Everyone was living on about 1.5 liters per day for all functions.  Most troops in the field need 4 times that amount of water to function.  All combined lead to 1800 cavalry troopers who were chronically dehydrated and very constipated. 

I digress:  On the medical side of things, social issues aside, some interesting problems began to occur due to our living conditions.  Of my 1800 troopers, 12 had acute appendicitis from January to mid March.  I made some calls to the experts and this was not a problem the leadership wanted to explore.  Talking to my peers from prior conflicts this is also as old as war.  Chronic constipation is a causative factor in the etiology of the acutely inflamed appendix.  

The unfortunate females that had been “pushed out” to my battalion from our supporting service units, signal, mechanics, supply and medics, all had at least one urinary tract infection per month.  I put a couple of them on chronic macrobid as a prophylactic measure.  I also become far more familiar with their menstrual cycles than I ever wanted.  Without exchange facilities, the medical team becomes the supplier of female sanitary products.  Factor in no bathing facilities from January to March late and you have an interesting challenge.  The scouts found a secondary school with showers, we paid them for regular episodes of 2 hours of hot water and private use… and the UTI’s went away.  This was a “ladies” only contract, so they then had to return and deal with several hundred unwashed men. 

Back to the lack of toilets.  When you felt nature’s call, you had to endure the hunt for a private location, clear the snow, break a hole into the frozen ground with your trusty e-tool, drop and squat, do your business, cover said product and recover garments.  This all to be completed while wearing your “full battle rattle” of weapon, web gear, ammunition, flack jacket and helmet.  Factor in a nice cross wind with drifting light fresh snow and it’s a really good time.  So you can imagine that if you are constipated, as we all were, you really wait until you are sure the mission will be a complete success.  I recall being so focused on what I was trying to do that I did not see the wild life near my selected location.  I looked up after hearing heavy breathing that was not my own and saw a huge 12 point stag eating frozen apples off a tree about 2m away.  He calmly chewed and snorted clouds of steam while looking my way.  This was just the motivation I needed to finish quickly moving slowly so as not to get charged.  He casually turned and walked past as if I was not there. 

After opening a couple of field manuals I got with an old CW4 mechanic and we built some 55gallon drum burnouts.  This is a military version of the hole in the ground outhouse.  In a permanent position with many people making regular deposits the hole in the ground will not remain unfilled for long.  Therefore a more sustainable system that can be emptied must be created.  The burnout latrine is a temporary solution to a long-term problem.  I will spare you all the details, but in summary one must pour a liter of diesel/JP8 into a half drum that has been 3/4 filled with waste, then provide some source of fire ignition such as a thrown burning match and then stir the flaming contents until it has been reduced to ashes.  For political reasons, the boss decided that everyone, including himself, would take a shift once a week and pull burn out duty.  It took about 4 months before I could get that smell out of my nose.  On the technical side, should you find yourself stirring a burn out… stand up wind. 

After about 6 weeks of living with a constant column of smoke marking our positions we finally got the first few port-o-potties.  They were beautiful blue and white fiberglass monuments to civilization.   They were fresh out of the shipping container with some assembly required, and they actually came with instructions for use with illustrations and text in 4 languages.  They had a door that closed with a little plastic latch for uninterrupted use.  The inner wall was imprinted with the manufacturer’s location, South Carolina.    Though unheated it did not matter.  It was a few moments of privacy, out of the elements to clear your system.  They were a little 1x1m slice of heaven.

For those unfamiliar with the actual workings of such devices, there are a few steps of maintenance and service required on a regular basis.  The US Army in its infinite wisdom felt it had closed the loop by delivering the units.  I am sure someone in Tuzla Main had a matrix on a power point slide for MG Nash’s briefing that evening, checking off the delivery and deployment of “field sanitation units”.  Unfortunately, the process of empting the closed system had not been considered. 

This is where the political skills of my boss, then LTC C (now MG).  To empty a port-o-potty requires a high power vacuum system that evacuates semi solid waste materials into a portable reservoir.  In the states you would open the phone book and makes some calls.  A couple of hours later a contract would be signed and your storage vessels would be routinely emptied, seats wiped down and paper replenished.  Not so in the northeastern corner of Bosnia, in February, when the martial to be removed had been produced by American peacekeepers. 

After the third day I open the doors of each unit and they were crowning over.  The fact that it was cold was a blessing, freezing the mound and preventing it from flowing under gravity’s influence.  One unit’s little mountain of stool actually had boot prints from some desperate trooper trying to make room for his deposit.  I pulled out the public health/preventive medicine hat and locked to doors.  Until the holding tanks were emptied the toilets were off limits.  That which had been a huge morale boost, was now a health threat.  We were back to the long walk into the woods searching farther and farther out for unsoiled ground or stirring burnouts.  Some genius had destroyed the burnout drums, so it was back to the e-tool nature walk or hold it in and hope for a solution soon. 

LTC C, Black Knight 6, made the acquisition of waste disposal contracts our mission one for the next week.  Patrolling the Zone of Separation turned to negotiating with the locals, seeking a business agreement for the services needed.  It turns out the only SST’s (not supersonic transports, but shit sucking trucks) in Bosnia were located on the far side of Tuzla, about 70km away on bad unmaintained roads.  The contractor was willing to come, but only for an outrageous fee, and only if armed escort to and from our position was provided.  Brown and Root would eventually assume the management of such functions, but at that time we were on our own. 

So twice a week a mounted patrol of 4 vehicles, 4 crew served weapons, and 12 troopers, would make the long predawn trek to the contractor’s yard, meet his driver and escort the SST on its rounds through our AO.  The SST frequently got stuck in the snow and mud, so the escorts became very good at process of extracting and towing.  More than once the driver was still drunk from the night prior, so I am told he slept while one of our guys would do the actual driving.  The Driver, Drago, had all the classic signs of end stage liver disease.  He had a nice light yellow tint to his eyes, big swollen belly and a tremor.  Probably from the occupational hazard of the combination of decades of chronic hepatitis and slivovitz (plum brandy).  Drago also had to be paid in cash each morning before the contractor would allow the truck to depart.  So the convoy leader would have to meet a finance officer and sign for 200 marks for that day’s service rounds. 

Once we built McGovern Base, Brown and Root delivered a set of prefabricated multi-toilet trailer units.  Heated.  Running water.  Flushing.  Private one seat stalls.  Real American style toilet paper.  Clean.  Shower trailers went the next row over.  It was like we were no longer in the field.  Lines did occasionally form (queue for those from the UK).  After the prior winter I did not care.  The only problem with base camp living was the insane rules.  Otherwise it was like being in summer camp with weapons.  But that is a whole different story. 

So was the lesson learned? No.  Scroll forward to 2003, far Eastern Turkey, Operation Iraqi Freedom, in an old grain storage facility we rented and named Camp Idaho.  The same dumb sequence of events played out.  I was not in a leadership position, just one more surgeon in an FST.  I tried to offer my advice to the guy in command over breakfast on the process of port-o-potty contracting and it was not well received.  The difference was this time it was not freezing and gravity did cause the mountain that formed to flow… into our living area.  Can you imagine a situation where the toilets did not come with a service contract?  Due to inflation and less skill negotiations, the Turkish SST cost 400 Euro per cycle.  Their SST got high jacked by bandits after leaving our camp more than once.  I have to believe the bad guys were after the 400 Euro and not the contents of his tank.  The doc’s in the FST all put in 10 Euro a week and we paid a local to maintain our private facility in spotless condition at all times.   It was the cleanest port-o-potty you have ever seen.  The average local wages was about .75 per day, so he was getting rich off our toilets as well.

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9 Responses to Field Latrines

  1. Pat says:

    Brilliant. Thank you so much! And thank your friend who wrote it.
    Portapotties at the summer renaissance festival are not to be
    complained about ever again. 🙂

  2. Skydoc says:

    I remember this time very well. Was at that doc’s BDE HQ (!1st BDE, 1stAD) as the BDE surgeon.

    We copped to the burnout latrines right away and kept them until the trailers arrived (along with Brown and Root support). This took about 3 months. Was a fight just to get screening material for the latrines to keep flies out in springtime.

    Interestingly enough, his PA is now a MAJ and working at USASAM as an instructor and we see each other almost daily. Then LTC C was my CG in Iraq and signed my air medal. Cool, how you complete circles when you stay in the Army long enough.

  3. Bonnie says:

    Wow. Fascinating. I mean that seriously, the things we take for granted. By the time I arrived in Bosnia in the summer of ’98, I really had nothing to complain about. The company commander and I would joke about the odor that would ensue when the SSTs showed up around 2100 to clean out the FIXED toilet facilities that were located near the gym-in-a-tent that we used near the house of blues. Had no idea how bad it was in the early days. Such a huge difference, being the first in versus coming into theater a few years later.

  4. Carmen says:

    After all this time, the Army doesn’t know that troops poo and pee? Or that poo and pee occupy space? That is alarming.

  5. Ann says:

    Thanks for too much info…some times it’s important to find out about these things. I was especially interested in how the problem with the female troops dealt with UTI’s.

  6. Berg says:

    Burners bring back lovely memories of Viet Nam…lol

  7. Kathy says:

    OMG LOL great story

  8. Bruce says:

    Ah, the joys we missed in Q8.

    Although I believe you were there when Doha hit its personnel limits due to sewage capacity.

  9. Angeluna says:

    Basic information and really interesting. Makes you wonder about the great armies of old and just how they managed.

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